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State Bar to Drop Lesser Disciplinary Investigations

December 29, 1985|BOB EGELKO | Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — The State Bar of California plans to drop full-scale investigations of many less serious public accusations against lawyers in hopes of speeding up its disciplinary system and clearing up a huge case backlog.

Under a newly announced policy, complete formal investigations will be conducted only on complaints that could lead to the disbarment or suspension of a lawyer. The Bar will try to resolve other complaints--the great majority--more quickly through informal proceedings, phone calls or letters of reprimand.

In addition, as many as several thousand backlogged cases in the less serious categories are likely to be dismissed in the next six to nine months through the efforts of hundreds of volunteer lawyers, said Joe S. Gray of Sacramento, chairman of the Bar's admissions and discipline committee.

Feud With Legislature

He said the goal of the new policy is to concentrate on serious offenses while using training and supervision to "satisfy the public that this isn't being used simply to dismiss things."

Concern in the state Legislature about the Bar's burgeoning backlog of unresolved citizens' complaints, along with accusations by some lawmakers that the Bar improperly lobbies on legislation, has sparked a feud between the Bar and the lawmaking body.

For the first time in history, the Bar is at present without legislative authority to collect dues from its 90,000 members; Assembly Republicans blocked the bill in the final hours of the 1985 session.

The Bar is now asking lawyers to pay 1986 dues voluntarily, and, as of Thursday, more than $3.3 million had been collected, contrasted with $1.9 million at the same time last year, the Bar said.

The dues bill will be considered by the Legislature in the session that begins Jan. 6, along with at least one plan to revise the Bar's responsibilities.

That bill, now in the final drafting stages, would shift lawyer discipline from the Bar to a new 15-member state agency, operating directly under the state Supreme Court.

The new policy on investigating complaints, approved by the Bar's Board of Governors last weekend, is the latest of several recent changes in the disciplinary system, including stricter penalties and disclosure of complaints when formal charges are issued.

Under the previous policy, about 4,500 of the more than 8,000 complaints received annually were investigated fully, a process taking more than a year. Formal charges were issued in about 1,000 cases.

The new policy requires investigators to divide cases into three groups: those that could result in disbarment, those that could result in suspension, and those that could result in only reproval, a private letter of reprimand that is considered non-disciplinary. Bar officials say the reproval cases typically involve a breakdown in lawyer-client communication rather than the lawyer's dishonesty or abuse of a client.

Now, only cases in the first two categories will be fully investigated. The staff will try to resolve cases in the third and largest group with letters and phone calls, though evidence of serious violations turned up in that process could lead to formal charges or a full investigation.

Gray, the admissions and discipline committee chairman, said the new categories will also be used in attacking the existing backlog of more than 3,000 pending investigations at least six months old.

He said the Bar plans to turn the backlogged cases over to several hundred volunteer lawyers in early 1986, with instructions to recommend dismissal of all complaints in the third, or least serious, category.

The recommendations will be subject to review by Bar prosecutors and Gray's committee; a member of the public can also ask the admissions and discipline committee to reopen a dismissed complaint.

"I anticipate that the backlog will be eliminated by mid or late summer," Gray said.

The Bar is also creating a new office to handle investigations, which have been directed by the prosecutorial staff.

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